Good beer comes in glass bottles – that’s been the mantra of the beer world since time out of mind. Only subpar brews come in cans, right? If you grew up in the heyday of Miller, Bud and Coors Light, you likely still believe that old saw. Cans are for mass-produced swill, while glass is for beer brewed to be different, as well as higher end brews imported from Europe and other countries around the world. If that’s true, then why are so many craft breweries adding metal to their production lineup?
The Lie of Aluminum vs. Glass
Ask the average beer drinker and they’ll trot out the old advice that canned beer generally has a metallic taste that detracts from the bold aromas and flavors of the brew, something that craft breweries shouldn’t be willing to risk. Aluminum is cheap. Glass is classy. Aluminum is for mass-produced brews, while glass is for beer brewed for discerning drinkers. If those lines sound familiar, or you find yourself nodding in agreement, it’s time to learn more about the lie of aluminum vs. glass.
In the beginning, it was true that aluminum cans did impart a metallic taste to their contents. That was true for all things, from soda to beer and more. However, technology’s relentless march leaves nothing unchanged and that includes the humble aluminum can. In fact, canning technology was revolutionized decades ago. When was the last time you took a sip from a can of Coke and tasted metal, unless you were tonguing the top of the can on purpose? When was the last time you popped open a can of fruit and tasted aluminum instead of sweet goodness? Chances are it’s been a long while. Of course, beer drinkers can be slow on the uptake and once true, observations take time to die when the situation alters.
Today’s aluminum canning process uses a sprayed on barrier between the aluminum and the actual contents of the can. That barrier prevents any metallic taste from leeching into the beer (or whatever else the can might hold). Pour a pint from a can and one from a bottle and a taste test of the two will show no difference whatsoever. Of course, if you’re drinking straight from the can, you’re likely to get a few metallic notes but that’s because of the metal top of the can making contact with your lips and tongue, not from any taste within the beer itself.
Why the Shift?
So, why are so many craft brewers ditching glass bottles in favor of aluminum cans? There are plenty of reasons to do so and they make just as much sense for beer drinkers as they do for breweries.
The Environment – Both glass and aluminum are endlessly recyclable and neither material really has an edge over the other in this respect. However, aluminum does have some qualities that benefit the environment more than glass does. For instance, it’s lighter which means a case of cans weighs far less than a case of bottles. Lighter loads mean less fuel consumed in shipping and less energy wasted during other forms of transport.
Aluminum cans get colder, faster. While that’s good news for beer drinkers who prefer their beer icy cold, it’s also good news for refrigerators and the like. Less energy needs to be expended in order to bring canned beer down to a specific temperature. On top of that, canned beer takes up less space than bottled beer, which is good for breweries, shipping companies and consumers. Less wasted space means better loading capabilities and moneysaving during the shipping process.
Protection – When it comes to protecting the flavor and aroma of your favorite brew, there are two major culprits that must be avoided. These are light and oxygen. Glass bottles obviously allow plenty of light into the beer, which destroys its flavor profile over time. Crowns/caps also allow small amounts of oxygen into the bottle, oxidizing the beer and eventually leading to off flavors. Aluminum cans are opaque, meaning no light whatsoever penetrates to the beer, preserving its flavor for longer periods. Additionally, the top of a can is far more impregnable to oxygen than a bottle cap, reducing oxidation.
Safety – Think of the number of safety recalls on craft beer in recent years. How many cans were recalled? Very few were. Now, what about bottles? There were far more bottles recalled than cans and the vast majority were due to safety concerns. Over-carbonation, chipped rims and the like, all create significant safety issues for consumers. Cans generally don’t have these sorts of problems. Of course, there’s also the issue of safety during carrying to concern beer loves and brewers. A dropped bottle of beer becomes a serious issue. Drop a can and you’re likely to get a cold shower, but you’re not likely to slice your hand or foot open.
Cost – Glass has a lot of things in its favor, but it’s not particularly cheap. On the other hand, aluminum is cheap and its other attributes help breweries cut costs for transport and storage which they can then pass along to their consumers. It’s also cheaper to set up a canning system than it is a glass bottling system meaning that both new and growing breweries are able to expand without the same amount of investment required.
In the End
When everything’s said and done, the beer can has become an integral part of the craft beer scene. Love them or hate them, they’re here to stay and you’ll find more and more breweries getting into the act, some actually bypassing glass bottles completely and going straight to cans. Of course, not all beers can well and the canning process can do some strange things to brews so you won’t be seeing bottles going by the wayside completely.
If you’re still of the mind that bottled beer trumps canned, take the taste test. Pour your canned brew into a proper glass and see if you can taste the difference. Chances are good you can’t.